Mixed Message: Mom Vs. Dad Discipline

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Kids need consistency between their parents in order to behave the way you expect them to.

by Sandra Gordon

Mom says “yes,” Dad says “no,” and kids end up confused. A lack of parental unity is usually the culprit behind kids who misbehave. Here, four couples with clashing styles work together to get better results.


“She believes in time-outs. I don’t.”

— Shaney and Louis Goldenberg with Zachary, 3

Discipline Dilemma
When Zachary doesn’t get his way, he typically screams or cries. Shaney’s solution is to give him a time-out. “But he just does the same thing 10 minutes later,” Louis says. Then again, Louis’ tactic of ignoring Zachary while he’s misbehaving hasn’t reduced the outbursts either.

Misbehavior Makeover
Punishing a small child for bad behavior doesn’t teach him the proper way to act, says Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline (Ballantine Books; $14.95). In fact, it usually backfires, making a child feel rebellious or, worse, inadequate. Instead of giving time-outs or withholding attention, the Goldenbergs should try a hug. “Kids can’t talk things out when they’re upset,” Nelsen says. “A hug isn’t rewarding misbehavior — it helps the child reach a better state of mind. Once you’re both calm, you can help him figure out a better solution.”

Three Weeks Later
Zachary threw a fit when his dad wanted to stop for bagels on their way to a bowling alley. Louis was so annoyed that he drove straight home instead. When Shaney heard what had happened, she held Zachary and spoke gently with him about the incident. “Once he settled down, we were able to discuss what went wrong and what he could do differently the next time,” she says. Louis was impressed with how Zachary responded to Shaney, and he decided to try the settle-down-first-then-talk-it-out approach, too. “Whenever Zachary got overexcited, I’d sit him on my lap, we’d have a chat, and after a while he’d be fine,” he says. The real test came a week later, when Louis took Zachary to a batting cage and it was closed. Instead of throwing a tantrum, Zachary readily agreed to go home and play outside. “I never realized that taking a moment to calm down and then speaking kindly to my child when he’s misbehaving would make such a difference,” says Louis.


“I like to coddle. He likes to threaten.”

— Margarida and Daniel Wainraich with Danielle, 6, and Hope, 4

Discipline Dilemma
Danielle and Hope never put their toys away. Consequently, the Wainraichs’ house is always a mess. “I’m lenient,” says Margarida, who often picks up after them. Daniel is less forgiving. If the girls ignore his request to clean up, he bags up their toys and threatens to throw them away. “They’re old enough to understand consequences,” he says.

Misbehavior Makeover
The girls should learn to pick up after themselves, says Susan Isaacs Kohl, a preschool director and author of The Best Things Parents Do: Ideas & Insights From Real-World Parents (Conari Press; $14.95). The Wainraich’s can encourage the process by offering an incentive to clean up, such as telling Danielle and Hope they can go to the playground once they’re finished. “That’s not bribing,” Kohl says. Rather, it makes them understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible. Eventually, picking up after playing will become a habit. Kohl’s other suggestions: The Wainraichs should set up storage bins so the girls know where each plaything belongs, and they should praise their daughters’ progress regularly (“You’re really getting good at making a neat pile.”). And, if the girls don’t help out, Margarida and Daniel should calmly explain that they won’t be able to play with those toys for the rest of the day.

Three Weeks Later
“The first time I told Danielle she had to clean up, she thought I was joking,” Margarida says. “But I kept saying, ‘We’re all doing this together,’ without getting angry. Eventually, she helped, and Hope did, too.” Then Daniel tried the same tactic. “I kept it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom would look when we were done,” he says. “It worked.” One day, when Danielle and Hope wouldn’t cooperate, they didn’t get to go to the park. They haven’t refused to clean up again. “Now they put their things away without us having to tell them,” Margarida says. “It’s great to see them so proud of themselves.”


“We don’t see eye-to-eye on spanking.”

— Janine and Michael Sillat, with Ethan, 2, and Emma, 2 months

Discipline Dilemma
Ethan has meltdowns whenever his sippy cup isn’t filled to the very top or he doesn’t want to put on his pants. Michael thinks spanking is the next step. “I was brought up with spanking, and it wasn’t such a bad thing,” he says. “Maybe that would help Ethan listen.” Janine is opposed to the idea, but she hasn’t been able to derail Ethan’s tantrums using a softer approach.

Misbehavior Makeover
First, the Sillats need to understand that this behavior is completely normal at Ethan’s age, says family therapist Carleton Kendrick. Ethan’s defiance stems from his growing awareness of the power he wields by saying “No!” or having a fit. Moreover, baby Emma’s recent arrival means he’s no longer the center of attention — a big blow for a child this age. As an alternative to temper Ethan’s tantrums, Janine and Michael can give him lots of extra attention. They can also emphasize the big-boy things he can do that Emma can’t — run, sing and eat by himself. And when they sense that he’s approaching a meltdown, the Sillats should distract him. For example, they might set an egg timer and challenge him to see how fast he can get dressed.

Three Weeks Later
Giving Ethan extra affection has had a positive impact. “Before I leave for work, we go through a hugging ritual in which he has me give everyone, including him, a big hug and then a little hug,” Michael says. Diversionary tactics have also reduced Ethan’s tantrums. “And even when Ethan does act out, knowing that his behavior will ease up as he matures makes it easier to deal with,” Janine says.


“He always wants to be the good guy. I’m stuck being the enforcer.”

— Jennifer and Chris McKinley, with Brenna, 2, and Ian and Patrick, 7 months

Discipline Dilemma
Chris travels for work during the week, which leaves Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom, in charge. “Even when Chris is home he doesn’t get involved the way I think he should, or he’ll say, ‘Take it easy,’ if I start to lose patience with Brenna,” Jennifer says. “And when he does take action, I’m judgmental about it. He might try to make Brenna laugh if she’s whining. I don’t think that’s teaching her anything.”

Misbehavior Makeover
The McKinleys can get on the same page by following this simple guideline: Whoever speaks first rules. That is, if Chris steps in to discipline Brenna, he calls the shots for that occasion, says early-childhood specialist Karen Deerwester.  If Jennifer disagrees with his method, she should talk about it with him after Brenna is asleep. “Each parent’s approach helps a child learn different ways of coping,” Deerwester says. When Chris is home, Jennifer should ask him to take charge of the kids so she can have some time to herself.

Three Weeks Later
The “who speaks first rule” paid off immediately. “It was so simple, but it worked,” Jennifer says. “As a result, I let Chris handle more situations with Brenna.” For his part, Chris was happy to take control more often. “Before, I’d just walk away,” he says. “Now I’m dealing with behavioral issues because Jennifer allows me to.” Their new discipline approach has made a world of difference, says Jennifer. “Now, we can agree to disagree without arguing about it. And Brenna’s listening to me more because I’m a lot less stressed.”

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